That's Off-The-Record: Textual Healing Redux
Back in 2012, a Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) spokesman said one reason southeastern Michigan had seen an increase in traffic crashes and deaths is because the area is more urbanized, thus has more motorists than the rest of the state.
In a column the next day on The Michigan View, The Detroit News political website, I countered the spokesperson’s claim, arguing “more motorists” logically explained “why” there are more accidents and deaths in urbanized areas, but did not explain the increasing frequency of those rates. (That column is also featured in my second book, Jimmy Hoffa Called My Mom a Bitch: Profiles in Stupidity. Pardon the self-promotion.)
What could be behind the rise after years of declining numbers? Maybe, I argued, it was a regulation legislators began enacting in SE Michigan, the state, and — in fact — the entire country in 2007: the ban on texting while driving.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, “Washington was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. Currently, 46 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. All but 4 have primary enforcement. Of the 4 states without an all driver texting ban: 3 prohibit text messaging by novice drivers and one restricts school bus drivers from texting.”
Don’t get me wrong! Texting while driving is stupid and dangerous. Car and Driver conducted a test in 2008 that concluded it was as bad as or worse than drunk driving. But like many new laws or drugs designed to fix an ailment, sometimes the side effects of the cure are worse than the disease.
Who are the biggest violators of texting while driving? An AT&T survey last year found adults (being honest) admit to texting while driving more often than (lying-like-a-rug) teenagers – 49 percent to 43 percent. I think that survey was as solid as the presidential election polling, and I contend the biggest violators of texting while driving are our youngest drivers, who serendipitously just happen to be the crappiest drivers. Great, huh?
In a KPMG study released several years ago, its researchers, in a conference call in which I participated, said they found kids don’t believe “texting is getting in the way of their driving.” Instead, they believe “driving is getting in the way of their texting.” That’s why the ban has failed. What the ban succeeded in doing was forcing young drivers to hold their handheld devices even lower to avoid detection, which means their eyes are now off the road longer. Good plan.
In 2010, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found “texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws.”
To be fair, a 2016 study found states that had some form of a texting ban saw a 2.3 percent decrease in overall motor vehicle fatalities, but researchers could not show a “cause and effect.” Was it safer cars, better roads, stricter enforcement, or the texting ban? They couldn’t say.
I choose to stick with the Insurance Institute’s science and my own anecdotal experience that says texting while driving is still a clear and present danger — perhaps more so now as laws have driven motorists to divert their attention below dashboard level instead of above it where it belongs.
So, how do we fix this conundrum? Simple, really. Configure phones so users cannot text while moving faster than, say, three miles per hour.
And here’s how that solution would be bogusly assailed.
First, the device manufacturers could claim foul, saying such a solution would add new technology costing gazillions of dollars. Ah, no; the necessary technology is already widely available on almost all phones today. It’s called GPS.
Big Brother conspiracy theorists will come up with some stupid claim while sitting on the couch in mommy and daddy’s basement. Someone will cry out, “What if I am in an accident and I need to text?” Well, if you’re in an accident, chances are your vehicle is not moving — unless, of course, you are plummeting off an enormous cliff, in which case, what exactly do you want to text?
By the way, calling 911 would always work.
Some will argue it does nothing for older phones without the technology. Those are few and far between as most people turn over their cell devices more often than they change their tires. (This somewhat legitimate argument is the reason you keep the texting-while-driving ban in place and actually increase the fine to something completely nasty with many zeros.)
Somewhere there has to be a sound libertarian argument that proves this solution faulty. Oh, here it is: What if you are a passenger on a train? Aha, got ya, Vines! But that’s where GPS jumps into action again. It would be easy for the system to determine if you are on a train and let you text your little heart out. If you’ve been on Amtrak lately, you’ll know you can track your every moment on a trip.
How about when your airplane lands, you‘re taxiing to the gate, and you need to text? You can’t wait five minutes? Nice try, Alec Baldwin.
Now, there is one legitimate beef about this proposal: What about car passengers? Two responses — one that would cost nothing and another that adds cost (thus price) to both phones and vehicles.
The freebie is to say “too bad” to the passengers and to get their calls and texts out of the way before getting in the vehicle. If a call or text is necessary, have your driver pull over and stop. In 2016, insurance giant Geico teamed with the New York State DOT to rebrand “rest stops” as “text stops.”
The option that increases cost also requires coordination between cell providers, phone manufacturers, and the auto industry to work out the technology required to locate an individual’s position within a car so it can block certain functions. This is not far-fetched, as this type of technology has been available for years in air bag and safety belt systems technology. Admittedly, it will raise the cost of both phones and vehicles, but — spread over tens of millions of phones and vehicles — I believe it would be a cost-effective answer to a deadly issue that’s not going away anytime soon.
But here’s the non-starter: What would we do about the tens of millions of vehicles on the road without the technology? That’s a real problem, which brings me back to the correct solution: get your calls and texts out of the way, driver and passengers, before you hit the road, or stop if you need to make a call or text. It seems to me we did just fine with that prior to the widespread use of cell phones, and passengers back then did something that seems almost quaint today — they talked to each other.
Some will argue there are many hands-free texting and calling options on today’s vehicles. Yes, there are, and they have been around for years and are getting better all the time. Regardless, the brain is still disconnected or semi-disconnected from the primary purpose of getting from point A to point B.
I bought a bumper sticker in a “head shop” in downtown Wilmington, NC, two years ago that summed it up for me: “Put down the cell phone and concentrate on being a shi–y driver.”
Jason Vines is a former automotive industry PR professional who’s worked for Chrysler (twice), Nissan, and Ford — during the Firestone tire crisis. He went on to work for Compuware in Detroit, before diving into the complex world of Bible publishing. He’s the author of “ What Did Jesus Drive?: Crisis PR in Cars, Computers, and Christianity” and co-author of “ The Last American CEO,” a behind-the-scenes account of Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors. He currently resides in North Carolina.
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I have a 15.5 year old daughter aching to start driving. It's real simple: some things are death sentences. One of those is finding the phone anywhere other than the trunk. In the front of the car? Available to you? Death sentence. No more license, no more car, no more driving. Train 'em early. I remember learning to drive just as the social consciousness discovered, and started teaching and using, seat belts--religiously. My entire driving life, I have never--not once--not worn a seat belt. And the concept of being in a moving car without such a belt seems extremely wrong. Train 'em early. Phone's in the passenger compartment, not the trunk? Make it feel weird. Death sentence.
Here's the thing about "pull over to text (or talk, or whatever)". It's easy to say that if you're driving in a fairly suburban area where you could duck into a McDonald's parking lot or in the rural midwest, where many roads have generous shoulders that would accommodate this. The vast majority of rural roads in DE, PA, NJ, and NY that I've been on are lucky if they have two feet of shoulder and there's literally no place to stop the car unless you want to block traffic and/or cause an accident. Granted, these are roads that no sane person would want to text while driving on, but that's not my point. My point is that the "Text Stop" program illuminates a basic limitation: it's hard to stop to do your texting if there isn't a place to stop to begin with.